Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



      In the fall of 1959, a year after I sent Robert Heinlein my psychology paper on Samuel Renshaw, I had another exchange of letters with him.  I'd just read his newspaper ad headlined "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?", which he'd published the year before, and I was troubled by it.

      I first became aware of the ad's existence when it was mentioned at a party of SF fans and pros I attended in Chicago.  I said I hadn't seen it, and Earl Kemp (one of the partners of Advent, publisher of Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder and other pioneering books of science fiction criticism), on whose couch I would be sleeping that night, said that he would show it to me when we got to his house.

      This ad -- eventually reprinted in Heinlein's collection Expanded Universe -- was a very hard sell, replete with trumpet flourishes and waving flags.  The ad called for continued nuclear testing as a matter of patriotic opposition to Communist Russia -- with further bomb tests equated with liberty and the threat posed by Communism with death.

      This made me highly uneasy.  I wasn't in favor of atmospheric bomb tests.  I had doubts that opposition to Communism could be sufficient justification for radioactive fallout in the milk of American and foreign children who had no say in the matter.  That seemed a denial of liberty to others in the name of preserving liberty for oneself.

      I would be even more troubled when I read a statement in Heinlein's new novel, Starship Troopers.  Here, Heinlein's narrator asserted that radiation is necessary for positive mutation and the process of evolution.  He told the reader of a planet that was a twin of Earth, but "retarded" because it didn't enjoy Earth's high level of natural radiation and therefore had an unhealthily low mutation rate.

      This was a very tricky assertion, somewhere between a serious statement, a sly joke, and a trap for the unwary.  To the extent that at this particular moment, the obvious reading of this otherwise gratuitous passage had to be that we could use more atomic testing, it was a serious statement.  And, if radiation wasn't just a positive benefit, but an evolutionary necessity, then Heinlein was taking a dig at those people foolish enough to oppose nuclear testing who were really being done a favor they didn't appreciate by those who knew better.  Finally, it was a trap set for the unwary reader because Heinlein actually said nothing about bomb tests, but only spoke of "natural radiation."

      However, in spite of the plausible deniability that was built into the passage, I had to believe that its intended message was further support for setting off more bombs.  And that didn't sit well with me.

      In the course of the Fifties, I would have the chance to see John Wayne, my favorite movie star when I was a kid, playing House Un-American Activities Committee investigator Big Jim McClain as he exposed hidden Communists to the light of day.  And, a few years later, I could see him again pretending to be Genghis Khan.  But that movie, The Conqueror, would be filmed downwind of eleven nuclear tests at Yucca Flats, Nevada, which in time would become notorious for their dirtiness.  Not only would John Wayne, dedicated anti-Communist, die of cancer, but so would the director of the movie and more than forty members of the cast and crew.  Not to mention a lot of ordinary American citizens in western Utah.

      Even though this long-term result hadn't yet manifested itself, something like it might be foreseen by a reader of Heinlein stories like "Solution Unsatisfactory" and "The Long Watch."

      The question I attempted to put to Heinlein after I read the "Heirs of Patrick Henry" ad was whether invocations of patriotism were sufficient to justify the actual human costs of setting off nuclear devices?

      Heinlein answered me.  He sent me a list of books and told me that I wasn't informed unless I had read them.  I found the books at the University of Michigan library, and I did read them.  They were all from dedicated presses somewhere to the right of Joseph McCarthy in their antipathy to Communism and the Soviet Union.

      The one book which sticks in my memory was a demonstration that while the weapons and military equipment we'd supplied to the Russians during World War II had been a crucial element in their ability to turn the tide of the war, they'd never acknowledged the extent of their indebtedness to us or paid us back.

      I didn't question the accuracy of the account, but I was put off by its accusatory and self-righteous tone.  To me, Russian default seemed less a sin that needed to be exposed than one more loose end left over from World War II, which was no more significant than anybody else's failure to pay us what we thought they owed us.

      It was while I was working my way through Heinlein's list of books that I read Starship Troopers.  And that would only make me more aware that while the books Heinlein recommended might present a case for the existence of a hostile, subversive and implacable Red Menace, none of them addressed the issue that I was asking about, which wasn't whether Communism should be opposed, but whether or not fallout was good for people.

      I admired Heinlein as I did no one else, and I had no desire to argue about Russia with him.  So when I wrote back to say that I had now read the books he suggested, and to renew my question, I chose my words very carefully.  Even so, it had to be apparent that he and I were alarmed by different things.

      This time, it was Mrs. Heinlein who answered me.  She said that Mr. Heinlein was now at work on a novel -- presumably Stranger in a Strange Land -- and wouldn't be able to continue our correspondence.

      Early in 1960, I dropped out of college and volunteered for the draft.  I would serve in the U.S. Army for a little more than two years, the last thirteen months stationed in Korea.  Although I was trained to be a preventive medicine technician, while I was in Korea I would do more typing for one of the company detachments I was in than any actual preventive medicine.

      In fact, except for those few months of typing, I would never be asked to do anything in the Army more constructive than march around, stand around, sit around, or ride around.  The Army would reward me for my diligence and commitment by promoting me to private first class.

      What I really wanted to be doing was writing stories.  I had sold my first one just before entering the Army.  It would be published in the November 1960 issue of Seventeen.

      The next opportunity I had to write came during the period in 1961 when I had the use of my detachment's typewriter at Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu.  During August, September and early October that year, I produced a 20,000 word SF short novel which would eventually become the last third of Rite of Passage.

      Over the years, there have been a lot of people who've felt this novel had something to do with Robert Heinlein.  It's even been called "the best juvenile Heinlein never wrote" by good ol' Charlie Brown, as though Rite of Passage were a book that Heinlein could have written, should have written, or might have written, but somehow never got around to writing.

      Yet the book doesn't have the sound of Heinlein -- it doesn't attempt to imitate his patented narrative voice.  It doesn't borrow Heinlein's vision, or parrot Heinlein's ideas.  Nor is it a retelling of any Heinlein story.  There's even a lot of stuff in it -- like folktales -- that isn't at all Heinlein-like.

      So, how can this story be said to relate to Robert Heinlein?

      Well, in more than one way, as I'll show you.

      However, the most essential connection between Rite of Passage and Heinlein, the one on which all the others depend, is this:

      My abortive correspondence with Heinlein in the fall of 1959, together with the previous exchanges that I'd had with him, had left me with some serious matters to work out.  This story was my best try at resolving them for myself.

      You might say that the short novel I wrote at Camp Red Cloud in 1961 was my attempt to take the measure of Heinlein, discover my difference from him, and find my own path.


ContentsPart 2

Graphics courtesy of Jelane